How and When to Ask for Letters of Recommendation

Updated: Nov 28, 2019

When should I start getting letters of recommendation?

You don’t need to submit your letters of recommendation until you submit your medical school secondary application to any given school. You can submit your primary application and upload your letters of recommendation later as they come in. This means that the earliest you might need your letter is July 1st. So don’t worry if you don’t have your last letter yet and June 1st is approaching. Submit your primary application on June 1st and upload your letters later.

Ideally, you’ve developed a few strong relationships with professors, research mentors, physicians, and others throughout your entire pre-med path. For the other 80% of students who don’t have many of those relationships, start talking to professors and others at the beginning of the semester before you apply. Ask them what they look for in students for whom they would be willing to write a “strong letter of recommendation” for. If this is established early on in the semester, you’ll know what you should be doing during the next few months to earn the trust and respect of these individuals.

At the end of the semester, or 6-8 weeks before June 1st, start following up about the letter. This individual may have received multiple requests from other students by now and you want to be the first on the list so that your secondary applications aren’t delayed by waiting.

If you’re not first in line, don’t worry. The other students who are waiting for their letters from this professor probably don’t know that you can submit your letters after you submit your primary. They’ll be scrambling and pressuring their letter-writers for a letter before June while you inform your letter writer that you’d like yours before July 1st. Oddly enough, letter writers write better letters when they’re not pressured.

I met with one of my professors to follow up about a letter during May and he said “I’m sorry, I’ve got these 5 other students really on my case about their letter. I can pump your letter out quickly, too if you’d like, but if you want me to spend more time on it, I can’t get it to you before June 1st.” Luckily, I was able to tell him that I needed mine before July 1st and he informed me that he’d have a great letter written for me during June. Thorough, personal letters >> rushed letters

How do I ask for a letter?

You can ask after you’ve known the person for a while or at the beginning of the mentor relationship. “What do you look for in a student for whom you’d be willing to write a strong letter of recommendation?” is a good way to ask at the beginning of a semester, shadowing or research experience. Try to do this in person. If that is not possible, try over the phone. If that’s not possible, an email is the last resort.

What is a letter packet? Should I use a packet?

Some undergraduate schools allow you to combine your letters into a “packet.” In this case, all your letters will be delivered to every school in the same way on AMCAS. This has its advantages and risks. For schools that want only 2-3 letters (Wake Forest, for example), it might seem like you’re directly disregarding their instruction by sending a packet of 5 letters, or you might be giving them more letters for the price tag of 1.

It’s hard to say which schools will or will not care how many letters are in your packet. If they asked for 2 letters but your letter packet has 5, they might only read the top 2 and close the file. The first two letters may or may not be exactly what they asked for (2 professors or 1 professor and 1 research supervisor) so pay attention to their requirements.

I was too nervous to use a packet. I wanted to send schools the exact number and type of letters that they had asked for. I had my letter writers submit directly to AMCAS and I was able to choose which schools got which letters.

What if my letter writer wants me to write my own letter?

You may want to consider asking someone else to write it. There is a huge advantage to having someone who actually knows you well enough write your letter. If you can’t come up with someone fast enough, try telling them that you’d prefer the letter came from them. If that doesn’t work, write the letter! It’s up to you what you write. You’ll normally send this to the “letter writer” for their approval before they submit it. This may not be the most honest and ideal way to get a letter, so consider it carefully.

Common Pitfalls

  • Asking someone who doesn’t know you well enough

  • Waiting until the last minute

  • Asking someone who goes out of town around May, June, or July

  • Not checking the school’s specific letter requirements

KEY Points

  • Start asking about letters as soon as you can

  • Provide them with a preferred deadline before July 1st

  • Only ask for strong letters, turn down anyone who implies they can’t write a solid one

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